Centrestage has undertaken a range of productions in the past three years but Formal is their first musical. With book by Donna Dowler and music and lyrics by Peter Dowler, Adrian Carr, John Ritchie, Ron Coldebella and Richard Van’t Reit, Formal takes place at the fictitious Marydale Secondary College, somewhere within Victoria, in present day.

The show officially started before any of the audience had been seated when some girls loudly burst into the theatre foyer. It took most of the patrons in the foyer a little while to realise this was actually all part of the story. When these teenagers headed into the theatre for their “school formal” the audience followed and made their way in to their seats. It was an interesting beginning that worked well.

Set in the small bakery presentation space at the 1812 Theatre, a musical is an ambitious undertaking for any production team and particularly in such a small performance space, but Centrestage managed to pull it off.

Formal Kirby

The story takes place in the hall of the Marydale Secondary College where it is announced the school will be closing and bulldozed to make way for a housing estate. While all students will need to find another school, the somewhat insipid principal, Mr Wilson (Ryan O’Hare), assures the students these schools, whilst further away, have much better facilities. Teacher Ms Reynolds (Molly Simons) is clearly not in favour of this decision.

Not long into the formal, the power goes out and four of the students, Jo, Brian, Maggie and Jeb, are sent off to investigate. They soon find themselves trapped inside an old cloak room by the spirits of former school students who then appear to them. In something similar to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the spirits of students past take our four current students through a series of flashback vignettes that give a glimpse into the lives of the school’s former students. We see everything from unplanned teenage pregnancy to war conscription to romances.

Formal war

The flashback vignettes all take place in different eras. A year sits like a calendar on the wall and with each new vignette, a page is removed to indicate a different time in history. This is further aided by some appropriate costuming. It works well until the year 1970 appears. Initially it looks fine – until there is mention of Abba. Abba won the 1974 Eurovision song contest and certainly were not known in Australia in the year 1970. It continued with comments about Skyhooks, Sherbet, The Bay City Rollers – all in the right decade but much later than 1970. For someone with fond memories of this decade this was somewhat distracting.

Wardrobe by Barb Talbot and Jayne Ruddick was well done and really helped set each time frame. I suspect a number of local op shops were raided for some great 80’s formal dresses. One word of advice – black topless bras protruding from a 1920’s inspired night gown is not a great look and cast members need to take care to avoid anything other than nude coloured bras to avoid drawing too much unnecessary attention.

Lighting design by Nick Cauchi worked well to create a sense of blackout but still provide sufficient light. Sound was adequate and the small band did their best to balance the volume against the unamplified singers. Some solos were difficult to hear against the band, but the story line still managed to come through.

There were a considerable number of scene changes but props were moved on and off efficiently and if anything, the short pauses during the scene changes did afford the audience a brief opportunity to reflect on the story that had just been told before moving on to a completely new one. Even details such as the tied balloons at the school formals were changed to represent different eras.

The cast of Formal included a mix of experienced and novice performers and the more seasoned performers certainly shone through, but it was good to see a lot of new faces amongst the cast in their theatre debut and hopefully they will feel encouraged to continue in further shows. The experienced performers certainly brought a high level of energy to the show.

Formal cast singing

Director Becky Lee, has delivered a good production for Centrestage’s very first musical, taking some strong young actors and extending them into another genre of theatre. While some were less comfortable in their singing roles, the quality of acting balanced out the overall performances. There were numerous pitch problems at times amongst some of the soloists and clearly nerves were a factor for a few, but the overall ensemble sound was rich. Credit should be given to the four lead students, Caitlin Lunnon, Joshua Cook, Chloe McKay and Kirby Chenhall for maintaining their characters at all times when the action was taking place on other parts of the stage through the spirit stories and when it would have been easy to momentarily slip out of character and become passive spectators.

Formal spirits

The story of Formal was predictable and concluded with the obvious “save our school/we love our school” that was expected, but surprisingly there was a considerable amount of genuine heart and sincerity (and enough to bring some tears to audience members eyes.) Lee should be commended for bringing through the tenderness of the story line that managed to pull at the heart strings to avoid it feeling too cheesy or clichéd.

The short season of Formal has already sold out. Hopefully the success of this first venture into musical theatre might encourage Centrestage to consider more in the future.

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